What courses do big law firms want you to take in law school?

February 20

A group of Harvard law professors surveyed attorneys from 11 big law firms to ask them what courses students at Harvard ought to take. The big headline is that they recommend finance courses, like accounting and financial reporting, and corporate finance — both for transactional lawyers, and to a lesser extent, for litigators. As Eric Posner puts it:

This chimes with my experience. I tell students that they should take as many finance-related courses as possible, including advanced courses in the business school. Math-anxious law students normally shy away from classes like these, only to find that they are expected to understand what a collateralized debt obligation or credit default swap is on the first day of practice. And, unlike the case of, say, antitrust, a good understanding of finance is not something one can pick up from practice. One might learn to fake it, but one needs a deep understanding. Every other big case these days seems to have a large finance component, and lawyers who are comfortable with finance can contribute more than those who aren’t.

All of that seems fair enough. But what if you’ve taken all of the business-type classes your school offers, or you want to take other stuff? The most highly rated non-business type courses were (in descending order):

Evidence
Intellectual property law
Federal courts
Administrative law
Patent law
Conflict of laws
Copyright law

And from a purely selfish point of view I will note that federal courts (which got 3.5 out of 5) is only a shade behind secured transactions (3.51), while conflict of laws (3.06) is a shade ahead of individual income tax (3.05). Unsurprisingly, no constitutional law course was rated above “3″ by this group of employers, although I giggled when the report noted:

One self-identified Yale Law graduate with five to ten years of experience in a corporate department … emphasized there was “value to having students develop their analytical abilities both within those more practice-focused realms and within areas of more academic interest (e.g., Islamic law).”

I wonder if the authors intended that as a Yale joke.

And what if you’re really just interested in litigation, albeit litigation with a large commercial law firm? Combining the top courses in appendices A1 and A2, it looks like the winners are:

Corporations (4.56)
Evidence (4.5)
Federal courts (4.4)
Accounting and financial reporting (4.15)
Securities regulation (4.02)
Mergers and acquisitions (3.96)
Administrative law (3.87)

Constitutional law also does reasonably well here (3.31), beating out copyright, employment law, income tax, statistical analysis and many others.

Overall, readers (and especially law students!) should definitely take the results of this survey with a grain of salt — it’s a small survey, a narrow group of potential employers, talking about a single law school, etc. But the data are interesting in any case. I’d be really curious to see results for other kinds of employers — judges, small law firms, public defenders and prosecutors, other government jobs, public interest organizations. Law students may actually need more advice about how to prepare for those career paths than they do to prepare for working at a large commercial law firm!

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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